The Psychology Behind Why We Procrastinate, Backed By Science And Leonardo Da Vinci
Everyday we wake up with honest intentions and a detailed plan to complete our most important tasks.
Pumped with motivation, we tell ourselves that today will be different from yesterday. “Today, I will finally be productive” and then, suddenly this voice creeps into our mind during the day.
- “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on with Tom, oh let me check Facebook, it’ll only be a minute.”
- “I don’t have time to do this right now, I’m too busy.”
- “Let me call Jenah to see how she’s doing, it’ll only be 5 minutes”
Instead of ignoring this voice, we listen to it. 1 minute of browsing on Facebook and YouTube suddenly turns into a 3 hour binge and then eventually, we waste up to or more than 10 hours a week on unproductive activities.
10 hours wasted per workweek is approximately 40 hours a month.
40 hours wasted per month is approximately 480 hours per year.
Assuming every year your average workweek is 35 hours a week with 4 vacation weeks and 5 public holidays off. In total you would work approximately 1,645 hours per year.
This means that every year on a conservative average, we’re losing a whooping 30% of our work time to unproductive activities.
Yet, even though we know this intuitively we still procrastinate heavily everyday.
We get too heavily consumed by the unimportant daily tasks instead of finishing the most important tasks to make progress. Then, whenever we do have free time we just waste it watching YouTube videos and fail to stay consistent with anything. Plus, we never finish things on time and constantly feel like we’re falling behind.
So, why do we set out with detailed plans and intentions, only to find ourselves never actually following through on them? Why do iconic figures like the famous artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, put off important work for decades?
Let’s explore further on what we can learn from science and Leonardo Da Vinci to help us understand why we procrastinate and how we can break this cycle.[/et_pb_text][et_pb_text _builder_version=”3.22.7″ border_style=”solid”]
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Sometime around March 1515, the prominent artist, Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned by Italian Pope Leo X to complete a very important painting within 7 months.
With a 7 month deadline and plenty of time to create the painting, Pope Leo X anticipated that Da Vinci would deliver the finished project in time for the arrival of their important guest— Isabella d’este, a high-profile politician soon to arrive in Rome for a diplomatic visit in October.
Instead of being productive, Da Vinci wasted many hours — periodically painting a whole day without taking a break (even meals), and then taking the rest of the week off painting.
He would spend his time off critiquing his paintings, working on his sculptures and even doodling in his drawing notes. 
After the 7 month deadline was over, Pope Leo X demanded a review of the finished painting.
Shocked to hear that Da Vinci had failed to complete the painting on time, he shouted, “This man will never accomplish anything, he thinks of the end before the beginning.”
15 years later Leonardo Da Vinci finally completed the famous Mona Lisa painting— remember that this initially had a 7 month deadline.
His bad habits of procrastination, poor organisation and lack of focus explains why Leonardo only produced 15 paintings and a handful of architectural designs in his lifetime.
This level of production is shockingly low for someone of his calibre considering the fact that other influential artists like Van Gogh produced 2,100 artworks in just a decade.
What can proven research from psychology and science teach us on why we avoid things we know we should be doing, even though it’s clearly good for us?
The Procrastination Equation
Let’s begin with a simple equation that can help explain this phenomenon :
This diagram is loosely inspired by the work of expert on Procrastination, Dr. Piers Steel, author of ‘The Procrastination Equation.’
What does this weird diagram mean anyway?
Motivation – This one is pretty obvious. The opposite of motivation is procrastination.
Confidence – How much do you expect to succeed in completing said task and how much do you expect to get a reward for it.
Importance – How much do you value the task and expect to enjoy the reward from completing it.
Distraction – How easily distracted are you when facing a task.
Time delay – How far away from completion is the task deadline? The further away, the less motivated you will be.
Simple algebra will lead us to observe that the greater the value of the top half in comparison to the bottom half, the greater the motivation with reduced procrastination. Easy enough. 
Okay, so now let’s go through each element of the procrastination equation.
This is shown in the equation by my failed attempt to draw a Michael Jordan lookalike.
As the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan was well-known not just for his technical ability on the court, but also for his rock solid self-belief and confidence in his ability to win any game. Let’s call this the Michael Jordan effect.
It’s a state of mind where you’re so self-assured and confident in your ability to accomplish a goal that you obliterate past procrastination and take action swiftly.
The more confident and competent you believe you are in accomplishing a task, the more motivated you are and the less you will procrastinate.
The converse is also true.
Low confidence and feelings of incompetence are often linked with lower motivation levels and a greater likelihood of procrastination. Particularly, Da Vinci has frequently been noted for being an obsessive perfectionist— often delaying the completion of artwork for several years because the ‘hands and faces’ were not perfect.
This is one reason why overcoming perfectionism is a crucial step to stop procrastinating and get things done.
Up next in the top half of the equation is the value or importance of the task. Let’s call this the cash money effect—because we place more ‘cash’ value on things we deem important i.e you spend more money on buying a new pair of Nike Shoes than a cheese burger at McDonald’s because it’s more valuable to you.
The more we value the reward of completing a task, the more motivated we are and the less likely we will procrastinate.
This may explain why you may have been procrastinating on eating healthier, working on your business or finishing a writing project. The value of the reward may not be strong enough for you.
Leonardo Da Vinci would have an instant burst of energy and enthusiasm after committing to a new project—only to lose motivation shortly afterwards, get distracted and start working on another project.
If you instead place more value on our goals, you can further motivate yourself to action consistently.
Let’s move onto the lower half of the equation— distractions and time delays, as shown by the annoying and irritating monkey looking for instant gratification.
This represents that voice in your head that constantly tells you to just check Facebook for a second while you’re working on something important.
So what do we usually do? We listen to the annoying instant gratification monkey.
Instead of finishing your writing draft or promoting your business, you end up wasting hours on social media or gossiping with your friends. Even Da Vinci struggled with this— he was constantly multi-tasking and distracted by new sculptures and engineering projects.
There’s one plausible psychological reason why we tend to procrastinate in this way—it’s called “time inconsistency.”
In human words, this simply describes our tendency to seek instant gratification right now, even though it conflicts with our long-term goals.
When you commit to goal i.e to lose weight, what you are really committing to is the long-term reward of getting in shape for your future self. But, when it comes time to wake up at 5 a.m. to go for a walk, you push the snooze button and throw your phone across the room.
This is simply because your current self only cares about instant gratification versus your future self who cares about delayed gratification.
This constant tension between our strong desire for short-term gratification and our long-term aspirations is the real challenge. The stronger our ability to delay gratification and avoid distraction, the more likely we will avoid procrastination.
Time delay is the final crucial element of this equation. This represents the illusion that you have enough time to complete a task.
Remember that Leonardo Da Vinci had a 7 month deadline to complete the Mona Lisa painting. One possibly reason he did not follow through on time may simply be his false illusion of time delay.
For example, when I was in University, I would usually have a couple of months leading up till the deadline of a major research paper. Instead of starting the work on time, I would spend these months socializing, travelling and watching my favourite TV shows.
As the deadline approached, I would continue to procrastinate and lie to myself that I had time to finish the report.
All of sudden, the day before the deadline, I would have a burst of energy and motivation to start working on my research paper. Several hours later around 3 a.m. I’d eventually fall asleep on the working desk.
The next day I’d wake up and ask myself why I waited so long to start taking action.
Why do we experience this spike in motivation when deadlines are approaching? In short, the time delay till deadline significantly shortened to one day— and so, it’s no longer enjoyable to procrastinate—in fact, it becomes painful.
Your Blueprint To Stop Procrastinating
“Life is a series of challenges from the day you are born until the day you die, to shy away from any of them is doing a disservice to yourself and mankind”
Now that we’ve covered the causes of procrastination, here’s a brief overview of how you can use the procrastination equation to beat procrastination.
Struggling with low confidence or fear of failure?
- Split your big goals into smaller achievable targets.
- Join peer groups that support and encourage you to achieve your goals.
Don’t enjoy the task?
- Delegate the task to someone else.
- Combine something you enjoy with the unpleasant task i.e writing your book draft while listening to music at the same time.
- Make pre-commitments to work with a friend or colleague that will keep you accountable.
- Redesign your environment to make willpower easier i.e delete distracting mobile apps and hide your phone in your another room when working on something important.
- Use ‘stakes’ to make the costs of procrastination more immediate.
- You could also try removing distractions from your environment and working when your energy and willpower are at their peak.
Deadline too far away?
- Create weekly mini-deadlines to follow through on your plans regularly.
- Announce your new committment to the public.
Most times the best way to beat procrastination is to simply just get started and build a habit of taking very small actionable steps.
The procrastination equation is a useful framework to help us understand why we procrastinate.
In a nutshell, if you want to beat procrastination in relation to any task, you need to raise your levels of confidence to achieve it, make the task more enjoyable, reduce distractions and the time to deadline.
Even though I’ve briefly outlined some strategies to beat procrastination—stakes, pre-commitments, shift in energy levels— the truth is ultimately we must make the decision to take action, regardless of how we feel right now.
We may never be able to completely eliminate procrastination, but we can strive everyday to live a better life with a clear motto: “Semper pergendum sine timore”—to always move forward without fear.
- Olympic Champion Dorothy Hamill on How to Motivate Yourself to Get Out Of Bed in The Morning and Succeed.
1. The stories of Leonardo Da Vinci’s chronic procrastination have been well documented especially noted by 16th Century Novelist and writer Matteo Bandello, though I use these characters in my own storytelling format.
2. Another explanation of the procrastination equation is the temporal motivational theory (TMT). See Steel (2007) on how TMT accounts for procrastination. My drawings and descriptions are a simplified and personal interpretation of this.